Wednesday, February 3, 2021


The title is a no-brainer, but necessary. Almost universally, we avoid contemplating the obvious fact of universal mortality. But ignoring death’s inevitability can’t make it go away or help us face it. The following free verse poem (rare for me) is my attempt to emphasize the utter finality of eventually arriving at our individual earthly end point:


Hourglass empty;
Measured cord cut;
Opportunities passed;
Possibilities exhausted;
Game over. . . .

End of discussion:
No more opinions;
All choices chosen;
Personal history frozen:
The last period
Forever terminating
The last sentence
In each autobiography
(Once partly private,
Hereafter an open book).

End of the trail,
Concluding all steps
Down all forks in the road
To finish the journey;
Point of no return;
The ticket’s last stop;
End of the line
At the final destination,
Where earthly life stops
And afterlife begins.

Whether delight,
In reward and rejoicing,
Or disaster,
In retribution and regret:
Gate shut. . . .

— David L. Hatton, 8/28/2015
(from Poems Between Here and Beyond © 2016)

As a Gospel preacher, my wish isn’t to create a morbid focus on death. I want to remind everyone to take their life-decisions seriously before death. But not all reminders about death do this equally well.
Inundation with news of death can be a blessing or a curse. Hearing of others dying warns us to prepare. We’re mortal, and sooner or later, we’ll leave this life for the afterlife. But a constant media stream—announcing the passing of faraway people unrelated to us—can numb our perception. Tragic stories of freak accidents, lethal illnesses, merciless homicides or desperate suicides may shock us, but to preserve mental hygiene, we dare not dwell on daily mortality reports too long. Yet dismissing them too quickly can dull us to what news of any death ought to instill: a resolve to be ready to face our own.

If media journalism fails, sometimes literary fine arts can succeed, especially when poets or novelists adeptly develop believable characters. Edgar Lee Masters showed this skill in his Spoon River Anthology—a free verse chronicle of an early 1900s Midwest community. Masters had the deceased of a fictitious village speak their own brief, autobiographical epitaphs from the grave. The voices of each terminated life stirs reflection, draws sympathy, or offers a cautionary reality-check. In the latter case, the message usually gives an alert or an advisory about life, as exemplified in the following excerpts from two of the poems, “Harold Arnett” (a suicide) and “Lucinda Matlock”:

I pulled the trigger… blackness… light…
Unspeakable regret… fumbling for the world again.
Too late! Thus I came here,
With lungs for breathing… one cannot breathe here with lungs,
Though one must breathe.…
Of what use is it
To rid one’s self of the world,
When no soul may ever escape the eternal destiny of life?
    *    *    *
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love Life.

Recently, I finished the murder mystery Deadline, a page-turner by novelist and Bible teacher Randy Alcorn. His credible characters allowed him to weave much into the story to provoke serious thought about living right and dying well. Such novels can change a person’s perspective on how to live and how to die. Certain readers might evade Alcorn’s intent by claiming the obvious: “It’s only fiction.” But this novel’s moral imperatives are not make-believe, and its decisive fork in the road at Christ’s Cross leads either to the heavenly bliss of eternal life or to the ultimate death of everlasting separation from God.

Death in fiction and poetry can be powerful and moving, but when closer to home, it’s another matter. At the passing of neighbors, friends, relatives, a parent, our spouse, a son or daughter, we mourn more deeply and ponder our loss much longer. Over time, grief may subside, but reminding memorablia in our immediate environment frequently resuscitate and extend the pain of the parting. Achieving a complete goodbye may take years, or we may still be in the process when it’s our turn to depart. While some call belief in an afterlife superstitious, the goodbye intrinsic to grief may unconsciously express the hope contained in the contracted phrase from which it derives: “God be wi’ ye!” Almost as a cultural reflex—and perhaps even contrary to one’s personal doubts or unbelief—the human tendency is to add to “God be with you” the colloquially familiar phrase “till we meet again.”

Because these nearer and dearer incidents of death are not quickly forgotten, the personal message they offer is not as easily brushed aside. Our thoughts linger on missing faces. We reminisce about lost embraces. I believe there’s a built-in human longing—an afterlife hope, stated or unstated—for a heavenly reunion, where we regain the presence of our departed loves ones and again feel their warm hugs.

The sterile worldview of modern philosophical materialism—a belief that time, space and matter are all that exist—cancels any hope for an afterlife. It evaluates personal individuality after death as “dust in the wind.” Religions envisioning God as a moral scorekeeper, who tallies our successes against our failures in life, provide no assurance that we’ll make it to such a reunion. But the Gospel call to follow Jesus Christ is relational. His personal promise is certain, inspiring confident faith. In John 14:2b-3 (NKJV), Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.

Many years ago I wrote a poem to contrast what philosophies and religions offer with what the Gospel of Christ proclaims. I think it presents a perfect appeal on which to conclude these thoughts about the inevitability of death and what we need to decide before we meet it:


Is there any meaning, a purpose why we’re here,
A reason for our living and dying day by day?
Could there be a message that comes from the beginning,
Outside our world of striving? Is someone there to say?

If it is all illusion, if we are just machines,
How can we measure value? Are we worth more or less?
If we are merely atoms that clumped by time and chance,
Why deem ourselves so precious upon vague hope and guess!

If only Someone’s out there to speak His love by word,
To tell us who we are; if only Someone came,
Then we’d have an answer. (Religion gave too many—
Science forgot our souls), but He’d have to leave His name.

Science said, “Keep searching.” Religion said, “Try harder.”
Some said, “Do your own thing.” And others said, “Be brave!”
But tell me how to listen. The voice of pain is loud!
The wounded scream around us. We face an open grave. . . .

But One came speaking purpose  and wept at pain and death
And healed the brokenhearted. “A lunatic,” said some.
But He said Someone sent Him named Father God and Love.
He claimed to seek the lost ones; that One who came said,

— David L. Hatton, 8/23/1978
(from Poems Between Heaven and Hell ©1991, 2014)